Robert A. Segal & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), A Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume l (Leiden & Boston: Brill Press, 2015), pp 517-524.
The word ‘environment’ is here used to refer to both the human and non-human spheres, but with special emphasis on the dependence of the former on the latter. We explore the range of associations of the term in ecology, in the theory of evolution, in the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, in religion, and in literary criticism. New advances in thinking are celebrated, but ancient wisdom is also invoked.
Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of ‘environment’ is that given in the Oxford Dictionary of Ecology: “The complete range of external conditions, physical and biological, in which an organism lives. Environment includes social, cultural and (for humans) economic and political considerations, as well as the more usually understood features such as soil, climate and food supply” (Allaby 1998: 143). Those human ‘considerations’ and those non-human ‘features,’ while they may be studied separately, are necessarily complementary. At first sight, it is the former that the English literary critics F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson seem to have in mind in their influential Culture and Environment (1933). After all, the avowed aim of the book is to offer a means of resisting the ‘standardization’ of life brought about by mass production and entertainment. But as their argument develops, we see that, in alerting their readers to the deterioration of their culture, they cannot help but talk about nature.
For, considering further that title of Leavis and Thompson’s volume, it is clear that by ‘environment’ they mean two different things. Firstly, they mean the social context of modern, urban England. This they see as having suppressed a living ‘culture’—the rural way of life which had been expressed most powerfully in the language of Shakespeare and whose demise is documented by writers such as George Sturt, author of The Wheelwright’s Shop and Change in the Village. This brings us to Leavis and Thompson’s second meaning. Because for them the world of Shakespeare and Sturt had ‘roots’ in a way of life which itself had ‘roots’ in the land, the critics see the ideal ‘culture’ as an embodiment of the ‘environment,’ in this sense: the rhythms of a natural order, manifest in a specific (i.e. English) locality.
The word that Leavis and Thompson use to make the link between social environment and natural environment is ‘organic,’ as in the phrase ‘organic community.’ The idea that there once was a human way of life that was in tune and in keeping with the order of nature, and that its memory should be kept alive, has over the decades since the book’s publication been dismissed as sentimentality. However, it might well seem all the more necessary today, as the very survival of life on Earth will depend on human beings acquiring sufficient respect for the natural environment to avoid doing further, irrevocable damage.
The challenge is to take responsibility for one’s locality without forgetting the larger, global context. We may say that ecology addresses the relationship between organism and environment; but the question arises as to how extensive that environment is. Most of the time, the individual will be thinking only of habitat, that is, the physical locality in which he or she lives, along with other organisms, whether plant or animal. But beyond that lies the whole landscape of the country of which he or she is a citizen; and beyond that are the seas and lands of the rest of the globe, with all their varied inhabitants. The connections multiply. The Greek root of the word ‘ecology’ is oikos, ‘home’: to think ecologically is to understand that one’s home extends from locality to planet.
The term for the relationship between specific organisms and a specific environment is ‘ecosystem.’ But again, the extent of a given ecosystem depends on the decision of the person analysing it. The pond in one’s garden counts as an ecosystem; so too does a whole ocean. To have a coherent environmental worldview, one must be able to see that the relationships we discover in a chosen locality are indices of the larger relationships that keep the Earth functioning, which may be seen as an ecosystem on a grand scale.
Charles Darwin was someone who understood the larger picture, but his discoveries about nature came about through very particular observations. Consider the following descriptive passage from The Origin of Species (1859): “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us” (Darwin 1985: 459). Darwin was particularly good at noting relationships which the casual observer would probably overlook. This skill, of course, helped him in his deductions about the way the natural world in its entirety had evolved.
Darwin’s followers tended to emphasise the idea of competition between organisms, as in the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (often attributed to Darwin, though it actually was coined by the political theorist Herbert Spencer); but Darwin himself had much to say about cooperation. It is also worth pointing out that Alfred Russel Wallace, a scientist who has as much claim as Darwin to be the originator of the theory of evolution, made even more of cooperation, and demonstrated that the theory had implications for the way we view ourselves in relation to the planet. In short, Wallace’s notion of environment was holistic, and he was hopeful that human beings would come to see the importance of connecting culture with nature, and of connecting both with a larger, spiritual totality (see Flannery 2011: 27-32).
The “Gaia” Hypothesis
The idea that the total environment of the Earth might itself be sustained by a unifying force has in recent years been especially associated with the name of James Lovelock. His ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, while being thoroughly scientific, gains its imaginative appeal from its declared association with the eponymous goddess, the earth mother of ancient Greek religion. The theory itself sounds rather arid in summary formulation: “A view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal—the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life” (Lovelock 2007: 208). Lovelock realised early on that his idea would never take hold of the popular imagination if he called it ‘Earth System’ theory. It was his friend, the novelist William Golding, who suggested the name ‘Gaia.’ Lovelock has since defended his decision to adopt his friend’s suggestion: “I know that to personalize the Earth System as Gaia, as I have often done and continue to do in this book, irritates the scientifically correct, but I am unrepentant because metaphors are more than ever needed for a widespread comprehension of the true nature of the Earth and an understanding of the lethal dangers that lie ahead” (Lovelock 1989: 188).
We are not here concerned with the legitimacy of using a figure from ancient Greek myth to represent a contemporary scientific theory. What matters is the significant impact that Lovelock’s thinking has had on our understanding of the environment. The ecological philosopher Colin Johnson explains: “The presence of sufficient living organisms on a planet is needed for the regulation of the environment. Where there is incomplete occupation, the ineluctable forces of physical and chemical evolution would soon render it uninhabitable.” Thus, “increased diversity among the species leads to better regulation” (Johnson 1991: 118). Moreover, if environment and evolution are inseparable, then Lovelock’s theory forces us to rethink the latter:
Our interpretation of Darwin’s great vision is altered. Gaia draws attention to the fallibility of the concept of adaptation. It is no longer sufficient to say that ‘organisms better adapted than others are more likely to leave offspring.’ It is necessary to add that the growth of an organism affects its physical and chemical environment; the evolution of the species and the evolution of the rocks, therefore, are tightly coupled as a single indivisible process (Johnson 1991: 118).
Nor is it enough to offer notional, abstract assent to Lovelock’s findings. For Johnson and other ‘green’ thinkers, real, concrete assent is required: “To create sustainable ways of living for the future, humanity has to accept the limits of those dynamics (as well as those imposed by finite resources) and devise ways of living and means of fulfilment within the Gaian whole, accepting our rights and responsibilities as part of a coherent web of life” (Johnson 1991: 118).
One problem in discussing the Gaia theory is the apparent contradiction between Lovelock’s idea of life on Earth as constituting a self-regulating system and the argument of the many green campaigners who draw on it in order to encourage people to take responsibility for its welfare. How can Gaia be both an order that continually repairs itself, and at the same time an invalid who relies on human care for her welfare? The contradiction is, as I say, only apparent, for Lovelock has increasingly insisted that if humanity does not act responsibly, it will itself become the invalid:
We have made this appalling mess of the planet and mostly with rampant liberal good intentions. Even now, when the bell has started tolling to mark our ending, we still talk of sustainable development and renewable energy as if these feeble offerings would be accepted by Gaia as an appropriate and affordable sacrifice. We are like a careless and thoughtless family member whose presence is destructive and who seems to think that an apology is enough. We are part of the Gaian family, and valued as such, but until we stop acting as if human welfare was all that mattered, and was the excuse for our bad behaviour, all talk of further development of any kind is unacceptable. (Lovelock 2006: 189)
So grim is the scenario which Lovelock depicts, that he proposes the idea that a group of concerned environmentalists should produce a Gaian ‘Bible’ to guide those who can see catastrophe ahead and the few who might survive it:
We need a new book like the Bible that would serve in the same way but acknowledge science. It would explain properties like temperature, the meaning of their scales of measurement and how to measure them. It would list the periodic table of the elements. It would give an account of the air, the rocks, and the oceans. It would give schoolchildren of today a proper understanding of our civilization and of the planet it occupies. It would inform them at an age when their minds were most receptive and give them facts they would remember for a lifetime. It would also be the survival manual for our successors. A book that was readily available should disaster happen. (Lovelock 2006: 203).
Mention of the need for a body of scripture may remind us that the idea of the natural environment as a total system to which humans must conform—a network of being which contains and sustains them, and which they challenge at their peril—might be difficult for many people of a religious persuasion to accept. The view of the natural environment associated with the Jewish and Christian Bible seems to be diametrically opposed to the Gaian. In the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis we read:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Genesis 1:26-28).
For those believers who want to read it literally, the Biblical story of origins is obviously incompatible with such a theory as Lovelock’s. The former has humanity at the centre of creation; the latter sees the natural environment as the totality which contains human and non-human life alike.
A transcendent, solitary God who creates the world through uttering his edicts from on high; human beings whom God creates ‘in his own image’ in order to rule over the rest of creation: these are not very promising elements in a story of origins, if the natural environment is your main concern. Monotheism and anthropocentrism are precisely the principles that have, according to ‘green’ thinking, caused most of the problems that now face us: the exhaustion of resources, the extinction of species, the intolerable increase in the human population, and global warming. The key word in the passage quoted is, of course, ‘dominion.’ However, as always, the Bible is here open to alternative interpretations: for instance, the fact that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 may be taken to mean that with dominion comes responsibility for a creation which God deems ‘good.’ Going further, a legitimate case for a ‘green’ spirituality could be made by pointing to Genesis 2, in which the role of Adam and Eve is presented more in terms of stewardship than dominion. Again, there are passages in Isaiah, in Job, and in the Psalms which present the natural environment as worthy of human respect. For example: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord” (Psalm 96:11-13). Of course, there is still the residual assumption evident here that nature is beautiful only because it reflects God’s glory, not because it is intrinsically good. For a fully ecological religious faith in the West, we have to wait until St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who regularly used familial terms to address the non-human world: ‘Brother Sun,’ ‘Sister Moon,’ ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘Brother Donkey,’ etc. Even here, though, the objection might be made that, while Francis celebrated the natural environment, he still anthropomorphised it, that is, depicted it in human form. There again, the same charge could be levelled at Lovelock for his mythic personification of the ‘Earth System’ as ‘Gaia.’
Eco-Spirituality and Eastern Religions
Coming closer to our own time, it is worth noting that one of the main developments in theology in the past fifty years or so has been in what is sometimes called ‘eco-spirituality.’ One of the most important exponents of this in the United States was Thomas Berry, a Christian ecologist who described himself as a ‘geologian’ rather than a theologian. The Dream of the Earth (1988) is an extended invitation to begin considering what it might be like to participate, physically and imaginatively, in the nature which is our true home. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999) could be seen as a draft of the Gaian ‘Bible’ proposed by Lovelock. It is a guide for the coming ‘Ecozoic Era,’ during which we will take our modest and respectful place within the Earth community after centuries of destructive arrogance. Such a transformation will only come about through the rediscovery of both ancient and native wisdom, by way of a corrective to technocratic modernity. The hope is expressed that such wisdom might in due course be reconciled with a Biblical tradition which has been purged of its anthropocentrism.
There are, of course, environmentalists who see that tradition as part of the problem, and consider that Judaic and Christian thinking have had an irredeemably detrimental influence on the Western mind, yet who still seek a spiritual worldview. Many have turned to the ancient religions of the East. Taoism in particular has provided the necessary conjunction of holism and reverence required for a coherently ecological spirituality. Originating in the classic period of Chinese philosophy (roughly 550 to 250 B.C.E.), and associated with the names of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Taoism was more of a path of wisdom than a fully-fledged religion. Indeed, when it did fledge, in the early years of the common era, the original impulse, that of aligning oneself with the ‘Tao,’ or ‘Way,’ of nature, became obscured by a superstitious obsession with immortality. That impulse was informed by the idea that everything is interconnected, and that humble acceptance of that interconnectedness is the key to spiritual revelation. The religious philosopher Alan Watts, in his Tao: The Watercourse Way, defines Taoism as “the way of man’s cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world” (Watts 1979: 42). In other words, and taking up that key term of Watts’ subtitle “Watercourse,” it is about ‘going with the flow’ of nature. In the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tzu, we read: “Humanity follows the earth. Earth follows Heaven. Heaven follows the Tao. The Tao follows what is natural” (Palmer 1991: 6).
Though other Eastern religions, notably Buddhism, stress the interconnectedness of all things, and though many Buddhists have gleaned an environmental message from the Buddha’s teachings, it is the early form of Taoism which most obviously endorses the belief that the natural environment itself offers all the spiritual meaning necessary. One does not need much imagination to see that the Tao is a force analogous to Lovelock’s Gaia: an integrated whole to which humanity will do well to subordinate its own whims and wants.
While the less environmentally-oriented model of Genesis 1 might seem to have held sway in the West, there was a significant rebellion against it in the later eighteenth century, when poets and painters repudiated the anthropocentrism of the received Biblical worldview. William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798) may be taken as representative:
… I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (Wordsworth 1994: 68)
Note how ‘the mind of man’ is included in the overall picture of the natural environment almost as an afterthought. More generally, note how the very sequence of phrases suggests the poet’s repeated attempts to define the force that underlies the natural environment which contains that mind; as elsewhere in Wordsworth’s writings, the word ‘something’ is made to do much of the work. Whatever he means, though, it has obvious affinities with both the Tao of Lao Tzu and the Gaia of James Lovelock.
Wordsworth in the above passage may subordinate the human to the non-human; but the burden of his work as a whole is the reciprocity of nature and culture. The English critic Jonathan Bate, in his study of the poet as representative of the English ‘environmental tradition,’ demonstrates that the poet’s sense of place was informed by an affection and respect for the rural communities of Cumberland, where he grew up, and that his ecological vision was also a social vision. Certainly, we may say that Wordsworth’s belief that to find how to relate to nature was also to find how to live in society influenced the Victorian sage John Ruskin, who opposed capitalist industrialism because it spoiled both the natural and the social environment. With his insistence that ‘There is no wealth but life,’ he advocated an art and a culture that honoured nature and allowed for what he saw as humanity’s natural need for beauty. It could also be argued that Wordsworth’s vision was the inspiration behind North American environmentalism. We might trace a line of influence running from the Lakeland poet through Henry David Thoreau to John Muir and beyond.
The ‘Green’ Movement and the Academy
That said, it does seem strange that the connection between English Romanticism and both English and American environmentalism took so long to be acknowledged and explored by literary critics. Bate’s book on Wordsworth appeared in 1993, effectively launching what he called ‘ecopoetics’ in the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, ‘ecocriticism’ had emerged slightly earlier, in the form of various scholarly articles, but may be said to have come of age in the mid-1990s, with the publication of Karl Kroeber’s Ecological Literary Criticism (1994), Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995), and Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm’s anthology, The Ecocriticism Reader (1996). Both UK ecopoetics and US ecocriticism were finally brought together in Laurence Coupe’s Green Studies Reader (2000), which also included developments in cultural studies and philosophy. Thereafter, the phrase ‘green studies’ seemed to take precedence over ‘ecopoetics’. However, the definition of ‘ecocriticism’ offered by Buell conveys the spirit of the enterprise, whichever nomenclature is preferred: ‘a study of the relation between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis’ (Buell 1995: 430).
Given how late the ‘green’ movement in literary theory was in making an appearance, one can understand the sense of urgency which its practitioners brought to bear in making their case. Cheryl Glotfelty’s pronouncement in her introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader is worth quoting: “If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know that there was an earth at all” (Glotelty & Fromm 1996: xvi).
She then goes on to contrast the insulated nature of academic discourse, whether it be postcolonial studies, Marxism, or feminism which is being professed, with the alarming number of ecological disasters reported in the media—all of which never seem to impinge on the academic mind. To paraphrase her general argument, and to return to where we started, we may say that the ‘culture’ side of our definition of ‘environment’ had outweighed and obscured the ‘nature’ side. It is, then, an encouraging sign of the times that the subject of the natural environment should now be central not only to the sciences but also to the humanities; and not only to critics but also to theologians, philosophers, and others.
Those engaged in this new advance in environmental thinking might do well to register the importance of the following pronouncement by the ecological campaigner Aldo Leopold, made in the middle of the last century: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 1949: 224-5). Environment is both culture and nature, for environment is ‘biotic community’; the problems arise only when we forget this, and assert the values of culture at the expense of nature.
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